If you were hoping to read a 6,000 word essay on literary realism, the modernist novel of the self, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and related topics, you could do worse than “Coming To Terms” by Jon Baskin.
Baskin makes some very good points, though not necessarily original, in ways that are I think kind of novel. I’m somewhat sure that Jonathan Franzen would disagree with him as to what Jonathan Franzen is doing with his novels, but maybe he wouldn’t. And that’s the best sort of critical writing, the kind that does a charitable job of describing a position you disagree with.
I’ve sort of talked about this before, but I feel as many people do about Franzen’s remarks on Wallace’s legacy — but I also still quite like Franzen’s work. I’ve never thought of it in the strict social novel realist tradition, though. I guess I don’t read enough secondary literature. It’s always, well, The Corrections and Freedom, at least, it’s always seemed like hyperbolic satire to me. Sure, it’s rendered in a realistic style. But so is Love In The Time Of Cholera, and that hangs onto the realism tag only just. Or, to be more specific, I’ve sort of considered Franzen to be the butter knife to Voltaire’s rapier. No, that’s not nice. But I do think Franzen is a really genuinely funny writer, but maybe only if you don’t believe him (or his fans/detractors).
A point Baskin makes toward the end,
What is the most real thing? This is the question that artists like Wallace want to use their fiction to investigate, and which the realist so often behaves as if he has already answered.
particularly registered with me. I don’t think Freedom is an encyclopedic novel, nor is it projecting a sort of overarching worldview. I don’t think fiction like that has been particularly effective since the 50s. (Yes, I looked that figure up in my own personal Literary Codex Of Things That Definitely Happened.) If you contrast Freedom with Goon Squad, two books with ostensibly similar aims but different methods, it becomes clear. Goon Squad’s elliptical narratives, playful structure, and the way it practically treats time itself with the pathetic fallacy — that was a dazzling and huge book. It contained multitudes, and told a story from every angle, yes, but that just makes it realistic. Freedom was actually a quite small book, though it was told at a languid pace. It was a social satire, though not particularly realistic. Again, the coincidences and amazing (mis)fortunes of its characters reminded me of nothing more than Candide, which, you’ll have to admit is a slim and single-minded book.
To return to the quotation above (I mean, why else quote so lavishly…), It’s always seemed to me that realism is more a frame of mind than a technique or form. What’s the line demarcating hyperrealism from realism? (I guess, not in the Eco-ian sense of the word, but still.) Julian Barnes sort of unsettles me. Flaubert puts on a realist clinic with his pen, but his aesthetic affect predominates. What delineates the modernist-realistic first third of Ulysses from the sections of Freedom dominated by Joey Berglund’s burgeoning sexuality? What about the (to me) slipshod narrative practices of Austen (not a pejorative) compared to the air tight Ian McEwan’s early-period plots? Or Tristram Shandy’s endlessly inward spiral against Kaz Ishiguro’s sci-fi version of Ford Maddox Ford in Never Let Me Go? Couldn’t all of these novels or writers be considered realist? Couldn’t none of them?
What makes Franzen scream realist is, I think, the seeming obviousness of his intent. I don’t think it would be mean to say that Franzen is a small-minded writer. It’s not meant to be disrespectful. But he has, from the two novels (which, to be fair, spanned I think about 1,600 pages together, so I have an idea) are like a combination of Bravo, The Food Network, and CNBC writ large across the page. They’re depressingly of-a-point-of-view, and if that’s the grand realistic project, I do not see how it diverges from the novel of the self except that it dresses it up in pretty clothing, or at least a lot of it. (Like a child wearing a several snow suits to go outside. And then he has to pee. The end.) Wallace’s fiction, not to pile on, is agonizingly almost-anti-perspectival. I’m not really comfortable saying what it means to me or what I think it does. I am not a literary critic! But I know that both its functions and the experiences it offers are variegated and subtle. He can be, at times, as funny as Franzen. But he was doing other things, that’s for sure.
It occurs to me that Franzen is sort of like, I think, Marc Maron, or really any humorist who falls into the perennially-upset-middle-aged-man category. The proliferation of publishing platforms and the internet has probably trashed his reputation more than any other living author’s, which is probably why he seems to dislike technology so much. There have been literary cranks throughout history, but filtered through time and letters (re-printed or just mis-remembered and re-told with varnish) historic literary cranks seem charming. Or at least they’re at a distance where they’re crankery can’t touch us. Franzen, though, is almost against his better judgement (and certainly against his best wishes) right here in our faces.
I really hope Franzen goes on to write a proper comedy so everyone else can see how funny he is. He’s certainly still one of my favorite writers, and the whole Franzen literary media experience just enhances it. Despite his antipathy for it, he’s become his own technological DVD extra.